By Jeffrey Pfeffer
Friday, November 19, 2010;
It was a cautionary tale: A longtime partner at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm decided she would step down from her leadership role, and in an attempt to make life easier for her colleagues, she gave plenty of advance notice of her departure.
Bad idea. As soon as her end date at the company was well known, she later told me, her role at the firm changed. People stopped consulting her on hiring or investment decisions. She wasn't invited to key meetings. Essentially, most people started freezing her out, treating her as if she'd already left.
And in a sense, she had. Her co-workers correctly anticipated that she soon would have no power to help or hurt them, so she became effectively irrelevant to their working lives.
In an essay in The Washington Post's Outlook section on Nov. 14, veteran pollsters Douglas E. Schoen and Patrick H. Caddell offered an unorthodox piece of advice for President Obama. If he announced now that he wouldn't stand for reelection in 2012, they argued, he would be able accomplish more politically, rally support to his side and better deal with the nation's challenges. Their advice flies in the face of what this Silicon Valley executive faced and what all we know about how to wield power and exercise leadership to get things done.
Getting things done, whether in the private sector or in government, requires power, and having power means retaining the capacity to affect what happens to others, ensuring that those whose support you remain dependent on you. As former secretary of state and Stanford University provost Condoleezza Rice told one protege, "People may oppose you, but when they realize you can hurt them, they'll join your side."
Similarly, Laura Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California at San Francisco, told my Stanford class on power that she stopped saying she wasn't interested in senior administrative posts at the university after she realized that signaling she would never have power over her colleagues reduced their incentive to support her initiatives.
These examples and the principle on which they are based - you have power to the extent that others are going to depend on you in the future - is just one reason that Schoen and Caddell's proposal for Obama seems singularly misguided.
Voluntarily relinquishing power (even in the hope of wielding more) is a futile gesture for many other reasons. People naturally want to associate with winners and distance themselves from losers. The famous "Basking in Reflected Glory" study in the 1970s showed that students at Arizona State, Michigan and several other schools were more likely to wear school-themed apparel on a Monday following a victory by their university's football team than following a loss.
Research also shows that, to protect their own self-esteem, people disassociate themselves from other people - particularly people similar to themselves - who are experiencing difficulties.
Engaging in preemptive surrender and tacitly acknowledging defeat - as would happen should Obama announce he won't stand for reelection - would cause people, particularly Democrats, to distance themselves from an administration perceived as failing. And if your opponents know you will be out of the picture in the near future, they will be tempted to simply wait for your departure rather than negotiate with a lame duck. (Think of the very image of a lame duck: a bird with a damaged wing, a picture of weakness and irrelevance, inconsistent with the strength and power needed to get things done.)
It would be nice to believe that, with such a dramatic gesture of post-partisanship, public opinion would rally to Obama. But laws are passed or blocked by legislators, not by public opinion. For instance, there's little evidence of strong public support for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but that fact has hardly discouraged Republican lawmakers from supporting the idea.
And the public, too, is certainly subject to one of the most fundamental principles of personal perception. We evaluate everyone along two dimensions: First, are they similar or different from us? Second, how strong and competent are they?
Leaders need power, as well as a reputation for being powerful. Announcing that you will be out of the arena soon seems like a particularly ineffective strategy to get things done.
Jeffrey Pfeffer is a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and the author of "Power: Why Some People Have It - and Others Don't."